Burnt flags, border clashes, and prisoners: Tensions continue to escalate in Armenia and Azerbaijan

Screenshot from a video by Vox explaining the history of the conflict and the 2020 war.

Tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan reached a new high at the opening ceremony of the European Weightlifting Championship in Yerevan, Armenia, on April 14, 2023. A man, who was identified later as an employee of Armenian public television, ran onto the stage, grabbed the Azerbaijani flag during the opening ceremony, set it on fire, and ran off the stage with the flag in his hands. Azerbaijani athletes immediately withdrew from the competition, citing safety concerns.

Azerbaijan's National Olympic Committee and the Ministry of Youth and Sports condemned the burning of the flag and described it as a “barbaric act.” Several government officials in Armenia also condemned the incident.

The flag burning followed deadly clashes between the two countries near Lachin Corridor on April 11, which left a total of seven soldiers dead — four Armenia soldiers and three Azerbaijani soldiers. There were also reports of at least eight soldiers left wounded during the clash. This has been the first major violence since  EU Civilian Monitors were deployed on the Armenian side of the Azerbaijan-Armenia border after violent clashes in September, reported Eurasianet.

Both countries’ Defense Ministries accused the other of provoking the latest skirmish.

In a separate development, Armenian security forces detained two Azerbaijani soldiers for crossing into Armenia. Official Baku said soldiers got lost due to inclement weather. On April 17, both soldiers were charged with illegal border crossing, smuggling, and illegal circulation of weapons and ammunition. Azerbaijani media reported that at least one of the arrested soldiers was tortured during his detainment. A video circulated online showing evidence that one of the soldiers was beaten. On April 18, according to reporting by the Armenian Service for Radio Liberty, charges against one of the soldiers were changed. The serviceman is accused of killing a security guard after crossing into Armenia. The new charges confirm earlier rumors that the soldier was responsible for the murder of the security guard. According to OC Media, in a video shared on social media, the soldier claimed to have “shed Armenian blood.” One member of the Armenian parliament speaking to Armenian Service for Radio Liberty, Narek Kahramanyan, said the arrested soldier confessed to the committed crime.

EU's civilian monitoring mission

In January 2023, the International Crisis Group released a report sharing recommendations for how to avoid a third war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The authors of the report urged Brussels to “endow its new two-year civilian monitoring mission with adequate resources as well as flexible mandate to foster communication and cooperation between the parties. It [the mission] should seek Baku's cooperation for the mission, including cross-border access, and (if possible) let the mission's staff liaise with Russian border guards.” The April clashes signal the lack of progress thus far. Moscow, one of the stakeholders in the reconciliation efforts, was quick to blame Western interlocutors, alleging their involvement was stalling the peaceful resolution and destabilizing the process.

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, voiced similar concerns in March during a Novruz holiday celebration statement. Aliyev lashed out at the mediators, accusing them of prolonging the conflict rather than helping to solve it.

In an interview with Politico, a senior official in the EU's diplomatic service said, on condition of anonymity, that things have not gone as planned for the civilian monitoring mission. “We were hoping for a different scenario with Baku,” said the official. Instead, the mission, which was deployed to Armenia's border with Azerbaijan in February 2023, has been discredited as an undercover “military intelligence operation,” and according to one news platform affiliated with the Azerbaijan state, the mission's goal was to “provoke Azerbaijan into a new war.”

But based on recent developments between the two countries, it is unlikely that the EU, or any outside parties, are responsible for the provocations.

On March 5, three Nagorno-Karabakh police officers and two Azerbaijani soldiers were killed as a result of clashes. On March 16, two civilians died in a landmine explosion in Aghdam, a region that was formerly under the control of Armenia but which came under Azerbaijan's control following the second Karabakh war. On March 22, the Armenian Defense Ministry said a soldier was killed on the border with Nakhchivan, just south of Yerevan. Azerbaijan's Ministry of Defense was quick to deny any involvement in the death of the soldier. It did, however, hold Armenia accountable for wounding one of its own soldiers on March 20.

Separately in December 2022, Azerbaijani citizens claiming to be environmental activists began blocking the Lachin Corridor, the sole land route connecting Armenia to the Karabakh region. The corridor remains blocked at the time of writing this article. On April 5, the so-called eco-activists prevented a group of local residents from entering Stepanakert (Khankendi in Azerbaijani). The government of Azerbaijani denies any involvement in the blockade, despite evidence that the so-called environmentalists are indeed supported by the government. However, Aliyev has praised the protestors.

Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of orchestrating the blockade, while authorities in Karabakh accuse Azerbaijan of forcing remaining Karabakh Armenians into submission. Lachin Corridor is supposedly under the protection of Russian peacekeepers who have been deployed in the territory since November 2020, following the Russia-brokered agreement signed between Russia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. They are also in charge of providing security for entry and exit points of the corridor. In a broader context, however, the role of some 2,000 Russian peacekeepers remains vague. The lack of clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and activities in the 2020 agreement is now becoming an issue. The blockade is a testament to that.

Official Baku has also criticized the Russian peacekeepers too, referring to them as “occupiers” and accusing them of harboring pro-Armenian sentiments.

Border demarcation

In February, during the Munich Security Conference, leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met for trilateral talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Ahead of the meeting in Munich, Armenia's Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan announced that a peace plan was offered to Azerbaijan. Speaking to journalists in Munich, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev said although there was progress based on the wording of the peace treaty, “it was not enough.” According to OC Media reporting, “three key issues remain undecided in Azerbaijan and Armenia’s peace agreement process: the demarcation of borders between the two countries, the opening of transport links, and the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s Armenian population.” Last year, official Baku proposed its own five-point plan, which included pledges to recognize each country's territorial integrity, border demarcation, open transportation links between the two territories, and an agreement to abstain from threats.

In October last year, both leaders pledged to mutually recognize each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty at the European Political Community summit held in Prague. It was during the meeting in Prague that the two leaders agreed to a civilian EU mission alongside their common border.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan is determined to go after the man who burnt the national flag at the championship as well as those involved in the alleged torture of the arrested Azerbaijani soldier. According to reporting by Turan News Agency, the Prosecutor's Office in Baku launched a criminal investigation seeking punishment against all the perpetrators involved in the flag-burning incident. The Office is planning an appeal to the relevant bodies of foreign countries and international organizations to ensure accountability for crimes against the Azerbaijan citizen.

Separately on April 14, the Baku office of the International Committee for Red Cross said they were looking into arranging a visit for the two Azerbaijani soldiers arrested after crossing into Armenia.

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